As we look at our priests this Christmas Vigil, see what habit they wear before vesting. It is that of the Franciscan Order. What does our order say about penance?
United by their vocation as brothers and sisters of penance, and motivated by the dynamic power of the gospel, let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel itself calls conversion. Human frailty makes it necessary that this conversion be carried out daily. Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone, Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order Chapter 2 Section 7.
This same rule tells us, “The rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people… Secular Franciscans should devote themselves to careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to the gospel.” “Secular Franciscans, should seek to encounter the living and active person of Christ in their brothers and sisters, in Sacred Scripture, in the Church, and in liturgical activity.” Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone, Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order Chapter 2 Section 4.
This begins with John the Baptist and penance.Luke has John quote Isaiah, “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of Kyrie, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
John was talking about the poor who are the economic valleys. He talks of the mountains of cash in the hands of the rich. The crooked people will find alternatives to their crooked ways. The rough, the scrub cattle of the human race, will no longer have to put on a tough facade to survive. All flesh, not just humans, will see the salvation/Joshua/Jesus, of God.
In Luke 2:36 Luke tells of Anna the Navy/ prophet. “Anna,” the female version of John or “Gracious,” is the daughter of Phanuel of Asher’s tribe. Asher means “Happiness.”
Phanuel is one of the four archangels listed in Enoch 40:8-9. Penance is throughout the nativity story. The Aramaic for Penance means a turning back to God. Penance is turning and living the Franciscan life through careful living from the Gospel to life and from life to the Gospel. This means encounter the living and active person of Christ in our brothers and sisters. Saint Francis speaks of Brother Son and Sister Moon. Everything and everyone around us is our brother and sister, regardless of anything they may have said or done, in the past, or in the future.
Franciscan tradition speaks of another John, according to Brother Thomas of Celano in, “The Lives of St. Francis of Assisi. “I would make memorial of that Child born in Bethlehem, and in some sort behold with bodily eyes His infant hardships; how He lay in a manger on the hay, with the ox and the ass standing by. When the good and faithful John heard it, he rushed and prepared all the things the Saint had told him of.”
The Franciscan way of life is of Poverty, and Penance. What is poverty? Look at the crèche. George Foremen, the boxer, heard his children complain they lived in poverty because they could not have that new pair of Nike. He took them to the abject poverty of the Fifth Street Ward in Houston, and said, “That is poverty.” Look at the crèche; this is poverty, no romantic nostalgia here. A middle class home without the extras is not poverty.
As we look at the crèche, ask, are we people of penance, always comparing ourselves with the kindness and compassion of Christ? Do we act on what we see? Are we people of compassion, seeing, and acting on behalf of the Child, Jesus Christ, in all those who suffer? If not, let us ask again, “Are we penitential people?”